"Last year," said Scott, "I was driving my daughter to school and was stopped by police. I was driving my Mercedes, and they suspected I was a drug dealer. I had to convince them otherwise. This type of thing has been happening in L.A. for years." Sometimes at the Forum, when the Lakers are having their way late in the game, Randy Newman's I Love L.A. is played over the P.A. system. The song is popular among well-heeled Laker fans, most of whom indeed do love L.A. You wonder if Scott is the only one there who understands the song's intended satire.
Had they not had friends and family in the area, some players might have put the rioting out of mind. And as it was, some of them were ambivalent. Certainly no athlete cheered the destruction. And when asked, most pleaded for a better solution to economic and racial inequities than gasoline bombs. Yet few used their visibility to try and effect change. That was left to entertainers, from Sean Penn to Arsenio Hall, who pleaded for calm. The players seemed to understand that the situation was beyond glibness, or even judgment.
Did Scott, who grew up near the Forum in Inglewood, condemn the rioters? "No, I don't condemn them, because I know how they feel," he said. "I wish they'd show their anger in a different direction, but they're going to show the way they feel one way or another. I don't condemn what they're doing. I understand exactly what they're doing, and I understand why they're doing it."
It did not seem possible that anyone could watch the tape of that truck driver being beaten and fail to condemn the act. But many of these athletes had repeatedly watched the tape of Rodney King being beaten, and in the end that act had not been condemned. All right, but wouldn't men making upwards of $3 million a year feel some bile watching people take things for free? The newly franchised could not condemn even those looters. Dodger outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who grew up in the Crenshaw district west of downtown Los Angeles, explained, "They feel nothing belongs to them. They feel everyone has come down there and taken what is theirs. Everything they feel is important belongs to someone else, so they need to burn it down."
Strawberry, besides being a businessman in the area (the custom interiors store that he and teammate Eric Davis own in South Central L.A. was the only business left standing on one charred block), is less removed from the establishment than one might think. His older brother, Michael, was among the first Los Angeles police officers to be shot in the riots; bullet fragments struck his head without causing him serious injury while he was patrolling with two other officers on Friday.
This ambivalence, this failure of athletes to respond to the riots in any meaningful way, was maddening to some of those concerned about conditions in the inner city. Jerome Stanley, a sports attorney who represents Miami Heat guard Brian Shaw and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, said, " Jim Brown is the only one doing anything in the community. Every other athlete lives in an affluent suburb and doesn't care." And even Brown, the Hall of Fame running back who was photographed helping to organize a food distribution center in a bombed-out neighborhood called the Jungle, said, "Athletes always get put into a situation to do things that are symbolic, take pictures and all that. We need resources and expertise, not athletes looking to take pictures."
Out on the streets community leaders dismissed the impact of so-called role models entirely. T. Rodgers, a former gang leader who now works with people like Brown to reduce violence in the inner city, said, "We are the role models in this community." The athletes? "They're amateurs in the things that we're trying to do. This is my arena. I guess they could grab a broom, but there arc two things we need—technical expertise and capital. Anything other than that...."
Other than for Magic Johnson—"If I have to buy land to build buildings to give displaced people jobs, I'll do it," he said—there were few if any athletes committing to provide the resources or expertise mentioned by Stanley. There seemed to be a feeling that even to address the rioters would be presumptuous. "My only fear is that they'll look at me and say, It's easy for you to say," said Jazz forward Karl Malone, who has an aunt who lives and works near one burned-out area. "We just can't go out on the streets and say, Don't loot and burn," said Malone's teammate Blue Edwards. "They know that already." And Strawberry said, "I look at these people hurting inside. Now they get a chance to react on their own. It's not right, but nobody can tell them what to do."
But weren't athletes, who could bring so much influence to an issue, failing their fans by their silence? "I don't think people are let down by athletes," Strawberry said. "They are let down because there is no justice."
In the end more than a half-billion dollars in damage was done in Los Angeles. Some of the hollowed-out stores might restock, but many more will not return to the neighborhoods that destroyed them. An economic infrastructure was removed from an area that had little to begin with. On Saturday Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley appointed former baseball commissioner and 1984 L.A. Olympic boss Peter Ueberroth to spearhead efforts to rebuild riot-torn neighborhoods.